M’Lila bears witness to events that turn Xena toward becoming the Destroyer of Nations, as revealed in the episode DESTINY.
"Marcus, it is so simple: You do one thing - one good thing - for no other reason than you know it’s right. That’s the first step." - Xena in PATH NOT TAKEN
I have been watching her for a while now. Not so long as to understand her yet, but enough to wonder why I try.
She sits in the corner, her back against a wall, as she has since leaving her ship. I say "her" ship because of her finery, her bearing. The way the ship’s men followed behind like puppy dogs. Not a noble woman, though she carries herself as one. No, she does for herself. Descended the gangplank without assistance. Wears weapons. Her guards more to bear her things than for protection. She probably needs her hands free, as I imagine they could do more harm than any of those around her.
My eyes were not the only ones to study her. It is not every day you see a woman like that. Shoulders above most men. Long hair blending with the night, sparkling here and there in the torchlight that also glints off the cool pools of her eyes. Beautiful, I suppose, though more like those marble statues I glimpsed in Rome. And, I think, almost as hard. Certainly none dared touch. Even drunks moved aside, gawking as if she were a parade, mere dust in the haughty gaze that swept the wharf. When she settled on the port’s lone tavern and strode inside, she took the street’s life with her. Including me.
I too chose a dim corner. Curious as I am, I cannot afford risking the freedom I have managed with more than a little luck. Something tells me she has nothing to do with luck. I feel as her shadow, blending into the background like her hair in the night. It is how I have survived … but different. With her, I am more drawn than simply invisible. Enveloped by the guarded energy she wears like a cloak. I should probably worry I have gotten beneath it while others fail - mostly fools assuming her a purveyor of goods or sexual favors. I can understand their confusion. The way she laughs - no restraint or concern for appearances, completely at ease amidst the violence and bawdiness.
At first I disdain my interest in her, suspecting her a pirate queen one step above barbarian. She seems to enjoy toying with those who approach. Listening to them, head cocked, the corner of her mouth twitching, sharing secret glances with her men. When she has had enough, she leans forward, beckons the approachers close and whispers to them. They straighten red-faced and blustery. A couple grasped their swords, but did not seem encouraged to do more when her men simply sat there grinning.
Suddenly something unexpected happens. Her jaw tightens, face assuming a mask one might dance in before hunting. I follow her gaze to a rowdy bunch intent on stealing a woman who no doubt charges for her company. She is struggling against them. The pirate queen stands. She gestures for her men to intervene. The rowdies turn, prepared to challenge whoever has the gall to stop them. The pirate queen’s men point toward her.
She smiles - if you can call it that -- and draws her sword, leveling it at the rowdies. She says something to them in a playfully dangerous drawl. They tense as her other hand moves toward a dagger at her waist. Instead she pulls out a pouch, unties it with her teeth and pours gold coins onto the table. Apparently she is giving them a choice. They grumble among themselves. Finally one comes over to her table. He locks eyes with her. She nods and sheathes her sword. He gathers the coins, takes them to the others, and they shamble away and out the door.
The other woman accompanies the pirate queen’s men back to the table. She smiles gratefully and starts to speak. The pirate queen holds up her hand. She gives the woman some coins. The woman frowns, puzzled. The pirate queen says something with a small bow of her head. The woman stares at her a moment before bowing in return, straightening and walking back to the bar. The silence that had fallen begins to fill. The pirate queen resumes her seat. Her hunting mask gone, replaced with another only a little less inviting. Even her men drift off, leaving her alone in the shadows. Like me.
I huddle on the dock, waiting. The damp chill of my hiding place reminds me how far I have come, so unlike the dry heat now foreign to my bones. My spine stiffens. Like her, I was not destined for servitude or shadows. My father’s favorite, everyone said. Pampered as much as his prosperity allowed. Indulged in my whims, my love for the stars and certainty that I saw myself in them. Until the day invaders snatched my head from the clouds and carried me across waters that failed to accept my attempts to drown.
The others chided me for my complaints. Said at least I received better treatment than the children from lesser homes. Yes, my captors considered me comely, well-bred, if prone to bouts of sullenness. I would be taught to attend the lady of the house - a "plum" assignment in the opinion of those relegated to more menial tasks. I smashed that "plum" however I could, as the poor substitute it would always be for the life that had vanished in thin air.
Like my father, the captors indulged me at first. Bragged of my "spirit" and quick mind, which soaked up knowledge despite my best efforts to seem dull. But the older I grew, the less entertaining my rebelliousness. They decided to teach me a different lesson. Banished me to quarters with "rougher elements," put a mop in my hands, sent me trudging to market with a basket on my head. It is the one thing I thank them for.
I moved among laborers, traders, horsemen, sailors, thieves, warriors from distant lands. Learned to do for myself. How to survive on shore and sea. How to fight. I absorbed and practiced martial skills that compensated for my lack of size. My mind and body toughened around that part of me that still took flight.
The son of the household noticed my budding maturity, particularly the breasts and hips. One day my usual rebuffs did not dissuade him. He caught me in a storeroom with nothing I could use to defend myself. I will always remember the surprise on his face when I stopped him with two fingers to the neck. I vowed to his limp body that no one would ever own me again. I have been running, riding and stowing away ever since.
The bustle wakens me from my nap. I am not surprised. She does not seem the type to linger in one place too long. Already she stands at the rail impatiently overseeing the loading of the last supplies. It occurs to me this pirate queen too may deal in human cargo, that I might be safer waiting for a merchant ship. Just as I shudder at the image of myself again in chains, I see she has already snared a more valuable prize. A Roman nobleman, from his dress and arrogance, whom her men have dragged to the dock. I am not sure if this makes her a better or worse option. Regardless, I must choose.
I have dreamt of finding my way back to the home that may exist now only in childhood memory. In the meantime, I fight with others against powers intent on gobbling up people like berries ripe for the picking. I do not think she has become that yet, though from what I have seen she could. She is surprisingly young. I did not realize until she laughed that she may not be much older than I. Perhaps not yet 20. I wonder at her commanding presence, how she came to lead those who would kill for a bootlace. Yet she defended that woman for sale. Why? I am torn between thinking I can learn from her and fearing I will not like myself if I do.
The Roman makes my decision easier. He refuses to be humbled by her men, creates a disturbance that attracts her back to the wharf in time to save him from more punishment or death. I can sneak among a pile of sacks ready for hoisting onto her ship. I view it as a sign she is to take me on the next leg of my as yet undefined journey toward my destiny.
Things did not start well. I was discovered and had to kill one of her men. Instead of letting me be killed in return, she gave me a choice. Teach her to use her fingers as weapons, and she would let me live. I did not want to chance that she bluffed. I still did not understand her yet, but began to wonder if perhaps I was to be a lesson for her, rather than the other way around. Intriguing.
She had me taken to her quarters. "Show me," she ordered with gestures. I demonstrated how to use the pressure points that fascinated her so. For some reason she trusted me to use them on her. For some reason I did not want to hurt her. However, I did not mind teaching her another lesson. After I jabbed her in the throat, I stood there watching the blood trickle from her nose. On her knees struggling for breath. Her eyes growing in fear, pleading for mercy. A berry ripe for the picking, if I wanted. But I did not. Seeing it, knowing she had felt what that was like, sufficed. I relieved her of her misery.
Now she wanted to practice what I had shown her. I trusted her to practice on me. She proved she had learned my lesson well. I dropped to the ground, a berry she toyed with until she had communicated she was not someone to play under any rules but her own. When she relieved me of my misery, she smiled as one would with an equal. I suppose we understood each other as best two people could who did not speak the same tongue. Two wandering women of uncommon power in a sea of common men. I roamed freely among them, treated well.
Over the days, she indeed showed a good heart beneath her hardness, a mind as keen as my own. We often enjoyed each other’s company, silently basking in the ocean breeze or pointing out particularly brilliant stars. Giggling discretely at some trick she played on her men. I never had someone like that before, even among those who knew my name. I believe it to be new for her as well.
I continued sharing with her all I knew about fighting and disabling opponents. I learned from my study of her the balancing of force with reward in earning obedience, when to take control and when to give it to others - something I might need if I ever commanded those I intended to fight with. She ran a tight but relaxed ship. When it fell apart, it was not because of her crew, but because of her. And the Roman. Caesar.
He spoke my language. Knew enough about where I had come from and how, that I believed him a student - if not a practitioner - of gobbling up berries. He swayed her with his certainty, his superior manner, his manly charms. Like me, he was a captive she treated as an equal. But he was not her equal. Nor did he think her his. He would ask me questions about her or make comments I did not think appropriate. Not about big things. About little things that, like pressure points, you do not realize can take you down until it is too late.
I was so relieved when she finally ransomed him. Despite her schoolgirl blush as she kissed him goodbye, I thought she would let him slip through her fingers like the gold she demanded for his release. I was wrong. Dead wrong. Fortunately for her, it seems my destiny lay in making sure the same was not so true for her.
I had learned the blood in her marbled veins sometimes ran too hot for her good. Moved her to desire what would turn anyone else cold. The smoke of it clouded her vision, deluded the child in her to believe she could have, could be, what looked better or easier than it was. I am afraid that was so with the Roman. She would scan the horizon with anticipation she rarely displayed at sighting a ship to victimize, with disappointment not usually evident if one did not appear. Not until her face lit up at the flag of the Roman did I realize she had been pining for his return.
My belly churned, dashing my hopes against my insides like the ship that approached. Everything in me warned he would take us in the wrong direction. Me, away from the past I kept alive in song and would now be a whisper lost in the wind. Her, from a future of her own making. I tried to caution her. We had not needed many words to teach each other, but I had learned "friend" and that she was mistaken in calling him one. I hoped the terror in my eyes and voice would be enough. Unfortunately, she trusted him more. She tore herself away from my restraining hands, to run to him.
He betrayed her, of course. Killed her men. Took her, her gold, her ship. Everything except me, because I knew it time to disappear into the shadows again. I believe she protected me, as no one came to find me. I followed them when they dragged her to the shore. Tied her to a cross. Broke her legs. Her scream pierced my heart. It reminded me of a baby bird surprised by a fall from the nest and the sharpness of fangs piercing its neck. And so they discarded her to die beaten in the rain with the staked-out remnants of her crew.
Being a child of the night does have its advantages - my brown skin and resourcefulness. I snuck up on the guards left to ensure her last breath. Their numbers, size and weapons were nothing against my outrage. I dispatched them and cut her down. Used one of their horses to bear her to a healer I knew. Nikklio. If anyone could help put her back together, it was he.
She survived the pain of reset bones. Her strong will and body made sure of that, despite her puzzling about why she still lived. I knew. All the visions of my childhood, my rants against the forces that let me be ripped from my family, to wander cobbling together purpose and meaning from strangers. In darkness and danger. Alone. Why? By the time Nikklio translated her own question - "Why did you save me?" - my heart had found the answer. It was not her time to die, nor was I supposed to let her. It had all become just that simple.
I watched over her while she slept, the peace of her face disturbed by some nightmare I could only imagine. Perhaps, like me, an unwilling outcast from the nest, forced from youth too soon. Somehow gifted with the wherewithal to survive the teeth of predators. To squeeze sustenance from what we retained of our mothers’ breast, the dreams we once had or whatever scraps the world tossed our way. Driven to conquer our fears, to learn the secrets of the wild and arm ourselves against any who dared clip our wings. Women on the outside, guarding girls inside who would laugh, sing, love, yearn, and trust themselves to strangers.
Her exploits and reputation merely scratched the surface of her potential. I had witnessed her courage. Her perseverance and fledgling sense of honor. Her generosity when so moved. The Roman had shattered her body and life as a pirate queen. Perhaps in so doing, he had unwittingly freed her spirit. In Nikklio’s healing space, we could support her in meditating upon her true path. I considered that, when she was whole, I might travel with her. I felt us linked beyond ships accidentally passing in the night, that maybe I would find my route on hers. I suppose in that I was dead right.
I am now where I once saw myself, because of her. One with the skies, my head in the clouds, a star above the homeland I will not miss again. A child of the day as well as the night. I only wish I could say the same of her. It was not her time to achieve that state as I had, but there was a moment when I thought she would begin the journey. After I told her why I saved her. I believe she thanked me, the wonder in her eyes at a crossroads between hope and disbelief. I asked her the question that might signal which way she would go. "Do you have anger towards Caesar?"
She struggled with herself for the answer. It soon came in the form of Caesar’s soldiers, intent on finishing her. I tried to silence both that answer and its bearers, first by fighting them, finally by throwing myself in front of an arrow meant for her. I smiled after it hit me. She had saved me from her own men and Caesar. I had returned the favor. I would have my freedom from the darkness in death. She owed me nothing save her chance to be free of the darkness in life. Her horror and pain proved me "friend." Unfortunately, it seems my peace as I died in her arms pushed her over the edge, away from her own peace, again toward the wrong turn Caesar marked.
I understood her now and why I needed to, yet my spirit watched her with mixed emotions as I had in the beginning. Yes, I cheered her success against Caesar’s assassins, gratified at the surge in her reason to survive despite her broken body. Until I realized what she would do with Nikklio’s healing and my skills. I did not need my newfound ability to comprehend her tongue, to know where she was headed. I could discern it in her joy at slitting an attacker’s throat. In her smile of madness when she vowed, "A new Xena is born tonight, with a new purpose in life. Death!"
I cannot believe we found each other to unwittingly mold her in Caesar’s image - worse than when we met, her excuse and first step over my dead body. There must be a reason she learned my name moments before I died. If I whisper it enough into the firmament, the wind may carry it to her like my song of home, when she stands at another crossroads. Perhaps she will remember she spoke it once, in gratitude, and call it again - this time to show my death not in vain, my life the better path. "M’Lila." One step. Sometimes destiny is just that simple.
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